For more than 10 years, Wilmette resident Mara Ruda’s poor vision has kept her from driving. She was living in Evanston at the time and didn’t want to burden her friends by asking for rides to her regular doctor appointments.
Then she learned about the North Shore Senior Center’s Escorted Transportation Service (ETS), which enables senior citizens to arrange with volunteers transport to medical appointments for a $12 roundtrip fee.
The program is meant for occasional appointments rather than regular, weekly runs such as for physical therapy or chemotherapy.
“I just don’t know what I would do without that service,” Ruda said. “It’s really a godsend.”
The long-running program has provided rides to hundreds of clients, transporting about 30 people a month. A group of 20-30 volunteers, using their own cars and gas money, take passengers to destinations in BCannockburn, Deerfield, Evanston, Glenview, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Northbrook, Northfield, Skokie and Wilmette.
Before they can play chauffeur, prospective drivers are interviewed about their background and prior volunteer experiences. Seniors Center staff members also check driving records, criminal records and references.
“I think the seniors really appreciate knowing they’ve been screened and it’s more personal than a taxi,” said Maura Rogan, director of volunteer services for the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield.
Seniors must register for ETS by calling the center and filling out a form. They then receive a voicemail line to call a week in advance of their appointments to schedule a ride. A bill for the service comes at the end of the month.
But demand for the service has outstripped the supply of drivers.
“We just don’t have the volunteer force to do that,” Rogan said of being unable to provide cab-like service.
The North Shore Senior Center is always looking for new volunteers so it can serve more seniors throughout the North Shore.
Cindy Crist has been volunteering with ETS for more than a year and finds it to be very rewarding. The Glenview resident said she receives a call asking her to volunteer as a driver about once a month--though there is no obligation.
“The people you drive are so appreciative,” Crist said. “It’s been like driving a relative. They couldn’t be more pleasant. It just feels good.”
Lincolnwood resident Diane Bohm has been volunteering with ETS since retiring four years ago, typically providing rides every 10 days.
“I think it’s amazing how when you lose your independence and can’t drive anymore your life almost comes to a stop in some respects,” she said. “Some seniors who do use this service go back to driving after some sort of rehabilitation, but a lot of them have reached a point when they can’t drive anymore.
"They’re really homebound unless there’s a service like this,” Bohm added.
Ruda said she takes taxis for runs to the grocery store, but noted that taxi fares to visit her eye doctors in Skokie and Glenview would be prohibitively expensive.
“I’m just so grateful that there is a program like this,” she said. “They all seem to be very special people to do this. I just hope that they have enough volunteers.”